For the Birds Radio Program: Sharp-tailed Grouse Blind, 2005
One of my great joys in April and early May is watching Sharp-tailed Grouse on their “leks,” where males gather to compete in bizarre, testosterone-fueled dances, and females fly in to choose winners.
Sharp-tailed Grouse are related to other grouse and, most closely, to prairie chickens. Like prairie chickens, males have strange air sacs beneath bare patches of brightly-colored skin on their “eyebrow” area and on their necks. During displays, they inflate these sacs. Prairie chickens also have strange feathers on their necks that in displays stand forward in a funky style. Their eyebrow and throat patches are both bright orange. Sharp-tailed Grouse have only a few very small odd neck feathers, but in contrast to their orange eyebrow patches, they have pinkish purple throat pouches—a psychedelic color combination that seems right out of the Sixties. Both species erect their tails during displays. Sharp-tailed Grouse have cottony white undertail coverts that stand out from quite a distance—often in the tall grass and weeds where they display, you detect the birds by the moving white triangles that are their tails.
But the colors and air sacs are only part of the charm of Sharp-tailed Grouse displays. When males bow forward and stick their tails up, they also open their wings like a beautifully-patterned umbrella, and in sudden bursts run forward making an oddly mechanical sound like a jackhammer. Every now and then two males fly at each other, sparring, but overall most of the action is in face-offs. If you watch a displaying group carefully, you may pick out a female. Compared to the exuberant, hormonally-charged males, females seem nonchalant—even bored—as they wander among the males, who often barely seem to notice them, so intent are they on their competitors.
I’ve had two opportunities in the past week to observe this entrancing display, from a blind at a lek on the Douglas County Wildlife Management Area near Solon Springs, Wisconsin. Sharp-tailed Grouse are declining over much of their range, and this particular barrens area was in danger of becoming an ATV stomping ground. Fortunately, the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary society worked hard to ensure that these vulnerable birds are protected on this important site. They also make arrangements for people to view the blind, from mid-April through mid-May. To view these birds, you must arrive in the blind before first light, well before dawn, and must remain inside the blind until the birds have left for the day, so they won’t be disturbed during their courtship rituals, risking the birds abandoning this lek.
Once females are incubating their dozen or so eggs, they lose interest in the males and concentrate on their young. After the full clutch is laid, it takes about three weeks before the eggs hatch, and mothers remain with the young throughout the summer. Male activity at the leks decreases after most females are on nests, but some males continue displaying. If a female loses her eggs or young, she may return to the lek and mate as late as July in order to renest.
Sharp-tailed Grouse are a flocking species, spending most of their lives in small groups. We may encounter them anywhere in appropriate habitat, and where appropriate habitat exists, we should do what we can to ensure it endures.